Today marks three years of marriage for me, and since this blog’s niche seems to be mostly about the passage of time and marking milestones, I can’t afford not to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.
First of all, I know that three years sounds like a fairly insignificant amount of time about which to wax poetic, but it certainly feels a lot more monumental to me. I think that’s because each year of my marriage has been defined by a huge life experience.
Year 1: Cancer!
Year 2: Pregnancy!
Year 3: Baby!
I sometimes think about how we might have reacted if at our wedding reception we had magically been shown a movie trailer providing a tantalizing glimpse of what the next three years would hold. Would we have run screaming out of the ballroom? Would we have been a little more reflective whilst doing The Wobble on the dance floor? Would we have wondered where the Candid Camera was hidden?
Regardless of our imagined reactions to a hypothetical scenario, we still would have been forced to do exactly what we did—live through it all and rely on each other every day.
Marriage is not a movie trailer. It is not defined by the big moments and the dramatic reveals. A more realistic trailer would show how mundane married life really is, even when you’re dealing with an admittedly outsized number of intense life events over a short period of time.
The true-to-life trailer would have Oscar-worthy scenes of me texting Theresa about what time the train will get me home from work and Theresa replying to ask about my dinner preferences. It would feature suspenseful scenes of Theresa finding out that we somehow owe money on our income taxes and me desperately trying to finish mowing the last few rows of my lawn before the bag fills up. Will he make it?!
My point is that marriage—even a quote-un-quote exciting marriage like mine—is far less action-packed than it seems like it will be. It’s mostly about just going through your daily life, but with the added complexity of going through it with a partner.
That complexity is the key to the whole thing. If you’ve found the kind of partner with whom you would happily watch paint dry, the day-to-day “drudgery” can be pretty darn fun. Big stuff like getting through cancer, going through pregnancy and raising a baby will be similarly enjoyable (OK, maybe some more enjoyable than others) because you have entered into a partnership that enhances your life and makes the mundane moments manageable and the important moments magical.
I’m filing jointly now—in taxes and everything else.
But marriage is a process, not a proclamation, and there’s no guarantee that we’re always making things manageable or magical for each other. These three years have taught me two main lessons about how to be the loving, selfless husband that I want to be: how far I’ve come from who I was when I was single and how far I still have to go.
Sometimes it’s the day-to-day disagreements that stack up to the point where you’re tripping over each other as you try to walk around them. Other times it’s a seemingly fundamental fight that in the moment makes you wonder how you’ll ever come back together on the issue.
Thankfully, the balms of heartfelt apology, authentic forgiveness and eventual laughter have soothed wounds both big and small. We agree that the partnership is the best thing we have going—and that our partner’s influence is helping us to become the people we are meant to be.
As parenthood became the focus in Year 3, the centrality of our partnership became more complex and crucial than it had been during disease or pregnancy. We brought a new life into the world together—and introduced a host of new joys, sorrows, worries and wonders with which to grapple. With a third member added to our party, we found more magical moments to enjoy together and more opportunities for the marital rubber to hit the road. Our beautiful daughter required us to individually push ourselves to our limits of time, energy, and enthusiasm, while also requiring us to support each other and protect our partnership more than ever.
Even with our diverse experiences in the first two years of marriage, it was still hard. It remains hard. But as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, it’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great. And the last three years of my life have been a whole lot better than great.
I try not to let a day pass without being grateful that Theresa and I found each other and for the innumerable blessings that have flowed into my life by hitching my wagon to her star. To have lived through and learned so much by her side in just three short years of marriage makes me wonder what mundane and momentous experiences await when three years becomes 30 and 30 becomes 50. Is there a movie trailer for that?
They need to invent a new tense for talking about cancer.
Tense is a good word for it. It’s a tense tense. It’s an intense tense. It’s a past tense and a present tense. It’s an imperfect tense.
I had cancer. It’s gone now, by the grace of God. No evidence of disease. That’s the past tense.
But it’s never forgotten. Every time I get out of the shower, I see the fading scars on my chest and neck, and I remember. Every time something is out of the ordinary with my health—an innocuous cyst on my face or a prolonged mouth sore or an enlarged gland in my neck—I feel a creeping uncertainty and fear. Every time I hear a story about someone else who is receiving treatment or has lost the battle, I feel an overwhelming gratitude for the blessing of my continued life and my two years of remission.
That’s all present tense. This is how I live with cancer even after the cancer is gone: I remember the past. I value the present. And sometimes I fear for the future. No matter how much time goes by, a part of me will always be living cancer.
Cancer is an epic disruption. It disrupts your immune system and your plans. It disrupts your appetite and your mood. It disrupts your work and your play. It disrupts your priorities and your prayers. It disrupts the lives of everyone around you. It disrupted my life as a newlywed—first haunting me on my honeymoon and ultimately shaping the first year of my marriage.
It’s still disrupting me. First every three months, then every six months and now once a year, cancer bursts on the scene in the form of a CT scan. As I enter the machine, I’m instructed to hold my breath in order to get a clear reading. I don’t fully exhale until I get the results back days later, and I can be assured that the cancer itself remains in the past tense.
Getting a fully clear scan seems to be a struggle for me, as tiny ambiguities always seem to pop up, pulling me back into present tense. One time it was mysterious activity in my throat that could have been a cold or could have been something else. It was a cold. Another time it was an enlarged spleen that could have been something else but turned out to just be my larger-than-average spleen. For my most recent annual scan, the ambiguity still remains too tensely ambiguous for my tastes. A couple lymph nodes in my neck measured at 3.1 mm instead of within the safety of the 3.0 mark. One-tenth of a millimeter is enough to potentially blur the lines between past and present tense.
It was hard not to think about that while I waited for the doctor’s call with the results. When it comes to getting results from a doctor, voicemail is the enemy of good news. I missed his first call—both on my cell phone and my office phone—and he left a voicemail saying that he wanted to discuss my results. No rush, just wanted to chat about them. I missed his second call and had to wait a full 24 hours before I would hear from him again. Those 24 hours were spent in frenzied future tense, playing out terrifying scenarios in my mind and rhetorically asking questions of “what if?” and “what then?” and “why me?” and “how come?”
My doctor assures me that everything is fine, that my blood work is pristine and that the one-tenth of a millimeter could have numerous non-cancerous causes. I’m choosing to believe him. I recently had the aforementioned innocuous cyst removed from the side of my head. The lymph nodes could be reacting to that. I don’t feel like I’ve had a cold or illness, but my oncologist said I could be fighting something off and the lymph nodes were helping. He also said that if it was cancer, I would have other symptoms and the nodes probably would have grown a lot more than one-tenth of a millimeter in the year’s time between my scans. He said he will order another scan of my neck region when I see him for my usual checkup in four months, and we’ll see what that shows.
But today is the anniversary of my remission and there is still technically no evidence of disease. So I want to celebrate in the present tense. Cancer made me a better person. It made me more empathetic to the suffering of others—especially the invisible suffering that the stranger next to you might be experiencing before their hair falls out from chemo. I’m more attuned to the physical suffering that comes with side effects from treatment as well as the mental and emotional suffering that comes from being diagnosed with a terrible disease and all the side effects of uncertainty. I proudly wear the banner of a cancer survivor, but I know that so many others have endured or succumbed to so much worse.
I am grateful every day for the fact that post-cancer life has returned me not just to normalcy but frequently to unqualified bliss. I’m married to a beautiful woman who lifted me up and made me smile during the most difficult moments of my life. We together conquered a challenge that most newly married couples cannot imagine, and
enduring that experience together has reduced many of the usual mountains of marriage to mere molehills.We are now blessed with a beautiful daughter who is changing our lives in new ways every day and who represents a future for our family that is filled with boundless love and endless possibility.
Cancer will always be a part of my history and reality. But despite the wounds of the past and occasional fears for the future, the greatest takeaway from my cancer experience will always be a better understanding of the gift of the present.
I don’t know how or why it happened. If I had reflected on it more deeply back then, I probably would have thought that I was starting to develop my mutant power like the X-Men I was so thoroughly obsessed with at that point.
But this mutant power only lasted a year, and it was very specific in its application. At my suburban Catholic school, there was a circular driveway around the grassy field behind the school. On days when it was seasonable enough for gym classes to be held outside, this driveway doubled as a running track, complete with speed bumps.
While the school has long since shuttered, the driveway remains intact, instantly transporting me back to the dreaded two laps that we were forced to run at the beginning of each class. Or worse yet, I’m reminded of the seven laps around the track that constituted the annual Running of The Mile. You always knew that The Mile awaited you eventually, and from the ages of about 8 through 18, it was one of the worst days of the school year for me.
But not in fifth grade.
When we would complete those two laps to kick off class, there I was near the front of the pack—waiting for the majority of my classmates to finish while I stood around victoriously regaining my wind and trying my best not to look cocky. “Yes, I used to be like you slow-pokes. Don’t worry, your day will come. My day just came quicker than yours. Because I’m so fast.”
When it came time to run The Mile, my latent mutant power kicked in again. I don’t remember my time—probably under eight minutes?—but I do remember being congratulated heartily by the other fast kids. I was standing with the athletic titans of my class: the girls who ran on the track team, the guy who was good at every sport he ever tried, and the incredibly short kid who parlayed his speed into a major source of social capital.
The point of this recollection is to assert that fifth grade was one of the only times in my life that I can remember not actively despising the act of running. Unfortunately, sixth grade rolled around and my mutant power regressed back to its customary place of being awkward around girls, and my love for running dissipated as quickly as my odds of snagging a partner at a school dance.
I’m happy to report, however, that almost 25 years later, I have once again made peace with running and have frequently paid money to run. I’m also married to a beautiful woman who loves to dance with me, which goes to show that nice mutants don’t always finish last…in love or races.
But this is about running and how I learned to un-hate it.
Somewhere around 2010, I realized that my slowing metabolism and life as an office-dwelling desk jockey were catching up to my waistline as well as my longterm cardiovascular health. While I don’t remember exactly what led me to choose my old foe of running as a plausible weapon in my battle against the bulge, it probably stemmed from the fact that I had read one too many of those “sitting all day is slowly killing you” articles. It also helped that I had coworkers and a brother who were also interested in running, which leads me to my first tip for learning to be OK with running:
1. Choose a running mate.
When it comes to exercise, I think it’s important to have a wingman. It’s not all that necessary that they even run alongside you—maybe they’re faster than you, or slower than you or just have a different schedule from you and can’t meet up to run. It doesn’t matter. The point is to find a training buddy who will listen to your sob stories about how hard your run was yesterday and how sore you are today, who will celebrate with you when you break a personal record, and who will inspire you to keep pushing yourself in those moments when you realize that you are now spending your free time willingly doing that thing you hated for so long. It’s also way more fun to sign up for a race with someone else, rather than just doing it by yourself. It gives you a common goal to strive for and someone to eat bananas with after you cross the finish line.
Once I had found my running mates, it was time to actually go for a run. I still remember the first time I went to the gym after work and ran a mile THAT I WAS CHOOSING TO RUN. It was exhausting, but also invigorating in a weird way. When I was eventually able to run an entire mile without stopping, it became less exhausting and even more invigorating.
2. Sign up for a race.
Just because I’m OK with running, doesn’t mean that I love it. There are still plenty of times when I don’t feel like doing it, which makes me all the more proud of myself when I actually follow through. I’ve always been better about motivating myself to run when there is a date on my calendar when I know I’m going to run an organized 5K. My interest in and stamina for running has not led me to anything beyond a 5K in the last 5 years—and I’m not sure that I’ll ever tackle anything greater than that—but it’s been important for me to use races as a reason to run.
It’s also just really fun participating in a race. Beyond the varying quality of the race swag (I highly recommend the Hot Chocolate 5K in Chicago!), there is a palpable energy at a race that calls you to be the best runner you can be and usually provokes me to run faster and last longer than I would when I’m running on my treadmill or around my neighborhood. It’s almost like you can feed off of the energy of the other runners to replenish your own reserves. It also helps that the race results will be posted online for eternity along with your full name and age at the time of the race, just a Google search away from being discovered by personal stalkers, blind dates or future employers. With those stakes, you want to put your fastest foot forward.
3. Track your progress.
Even before the days when I wore a FitBit that is perpetually telling me to get up and take some steps and smartly tracking my moments of exercise throughout the week (apparently my FitBit thinks mowing the lawn is a brisk bike ride), it was important for me to track my personal progress as a runner. Since the act of running is still not particularly diverting for me, the reward is the process of noticing improvement over time. How quickly can I run a mile? Can I run a full 5K without stopping to walk? Can I run a 5K in under 30 minutes? I always have a goal of some sort in mind, and completing one goal makes me want to tackle the next. It took years of on-again/off-again training, but I recently ran my first 5K without stopping, so now I’ll be moving on to improving my time. It’s also nice to have a device that will tell me exactly how far I’ve run and show me my mile time splits.
4. Make the conditions as perfect as possible.
Running is an investment of time as well as calories, so it’s important to make that time well spent, or you’ll never learn to tolerate it. Once I decided that running was something I wanted to commit to, I tried to make the conditions as conducive to running as possible. On a basic level, that meant buying some dry-fit clothes to combat my profuse sweating and getting new shoes to be used exclusively for running. (I actually started out using my old shoes and eventually hurt my knee, probably because the shoes weren’t giving me the cushioned support that I needed.) I also downloaded an app that could track my runs and eventually bought a FitBit. I like to listen to music or podcasts while I run, so I got an armband to hold my phone. When I was starting to see some progress and increasing my distance beyond The Mile, I paid some hard-earned money to sign up for my first race. (Again, find one with good swag so that it feels like you’re buying something beyond a runner’s high.) Most recently, I bought a treadmill so that I could continue to run over the winter without having to pay for a gym membership or deal with the hassle of driving to and from the gym to go for a run. To my immense surprise, I actually used it quite a bit and was able to maintain some of my running momentum even through the harsh Chicago winter. When spring rolled around, I wasn’t starting at zero, which was a great feeling.
5. Don’t stop believing.
As I’ve hopefully made clear, I still don’t love running. I have yet to have a full epiphany on the joy of spending a half hour banging my legs into the ground as I travel short distances that humankind has invented better methods for traversing. (My bike stares back at me with disgust every time I go for a run.) I also encountered injury (that shoe-induced sore knee) that prevented me from running for a time and derailed the progress I had made. That wasn’t fun, and my break from running extended well beyond the healing of my injury, as I kept coming up with reasons why I couldn’t get back into it just yet. But the seed had been planted, and eventually a spring day came that made me say “This is running weather,” and I started pounding the pavement again.
It sounds cliche, but running is almost as much of a mental challenge as a physical one for me. Since it’s not my passion, there are mental hurdles I sometimes have to jump to maintain my motivation, but once I do, I never regret the run. I definitely like running more after I finish than before I start. And for now, chasing that feeling is enough to make it worthwhile.
If you’re like me and you’ve hated running for a long time, I’d encourage you to give it another try. If I could go back in time and tell my childhood self that I would grow up and frequently run of my own volition, he would never believe me, but that thought also inspires some pride that makes me glad I’m doing it.
And, who knows: If I keep this up, maybe I’ll magically become fast again someday.
This thought always seems to not-so-coincidentally occur to me around the time of my once-every-four-months oncologist checkups. How sad that it takes the specter of cancer to make me once again realize how truly blessed I am.
The timing of this week’s appointment was particularly compelling, as Lumpy was already back on my mind for a variety of reasons.
First of all, I had just read the story of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a Chicago area writer who knew she was dying of ovarian cancer and penned a touching love letter to her soon-to-be-widowed husband for Valentine’s Day in the form of an online dating profile for any woman who would be lucky enough to be with him after she had passed. She was diagnosed in September 2015 and died this week at the age of 51. As always, epically sad stories like this one leave me reeling with grateful thoughts about the fact that my Lumpy was the beatable kind. By simply adding “non-” to the beginning of my Hodgkin’s diagnosis, it could have easily gone another way. Why was I chosen to live?
Secondly, I received an email last week from a new health site called Bright Bod that is seeking to interview patients of various cancers and post their answers to experiential questions online as a somewhat crowd-sourced version of Web MD. Always eager to share my cancer experience in any way that would be helpful to Lumpy’s future victims, I jumped at the chance and walked through my cancer fight via a 45-minute Skype interview. (Incidentally, if there are any other cancer patients reading this, I can send you the site’s contact info if you would like to participate…they will pay you for your time!) Going over the timeline and symptoms and side effects of treatment, I realized how infrequently I think about it on a daily basis. Being a cancer survivor will always be a big part of my identity, but my full return to good health more often than not makes it a footnote instead of a headline. What a blessing.
Thirdly, a few weeks ago a friend texted me asking for prayers for a couple who found out they were pregnant…and then found out the mother has Hodgkin’s. I have written many blog posts here and elsewhere chronicling the joys and sorrows of both cancer and pregnancy—but going through both of those medical events simultaneously is simply unfathomable to me. Please stop reading this for a moment and offer a prayer for that couple and their baby. They must be a very special husband and wife to be given such a tremendous trial.
The final reminder that my gratitudinal attitude could use some adjusting came from looking back at one of my own cancer posts. Since Facebook now delivers a daily “This Is Your Life” digest of what I was doing on this day in previous years, I am able to relive the 2015 Lumpy battle as it recedes into the social media version of the history of my life. I wrote this post almost exactly two years ago, as I struggled with neutropenic fever and an unwillingness to endure more chemo treatments that I knew would make me feel even worse. I was reading the comments on the post and saw one from a woman whose blog site was titled “Livingly Dying.” I clicked over to the site and saw that she had indeed passed away on June 10, 2015—less than three months after commenting on my blog. Recent posts were dedicated to memorial services and a charitable event in her honor. The blog lives on as a testament to her more than four-year fight against ovarian cancer. Once again, it becomes impossible not to be extraordinarily grateful for my current situation and rather ashamed of my frequent lack of gratitude.
Now you might say, “Matt, don’t be so hard on yourself.” But why shouldn’t I start every day with a prayer of gratitude that I am still alive? My ability to write this post right now is a product of early detection, modern medicine and the support and prayers of everyone in my life. I am no more worthy of getting to live my life, love my wife and raise my children than any of the countless people who have succumbed to terminal versions of the disease. And neither are you, my cancer-free friend.
But it’s so hard to remember all of this during the day-to-day frustrations of daily life that nevertheless are still moments of a life that we are blessed to continue living! We should live in full and constant thanksgiving for all the awesomeness in our lives, and seek out joy even in the beautifully mundane moments. I’m striving to shed the skin of entitled indifference that starts building up every time I get another all-clear from my doctor. I got that call today. I’m four healthy months closer to total remission and a declaration of “cured.”
But I know the real cure is unmitigated gratitude, and I need to increase my dosage.
As the day that kicks off the Catholic Church’s season of fasting and repentance, Ash Wednesday can feel like a pretty somber affair. But I don’t see it that way at all. I love Ash Wednesday. It always fills me with a resounding sense of purpose, mission and ownership of my faith.
Ash Wednesday forces you to come face-to-face with your faith…by putting a symbol of that faith right on your face. I’ve seen a bit of back-and-forth about the recent trend of posting your #Ashtag image of your ashes on social media. Some people say it contradicts the Ash Wednesday reading about not doing flashy signs of your faith in public so that you can get recognition from your peers. I’ve never quite understood this line of thinking. Sure, perhaps when Jesus was preaching there were religious leaders and others who showcased their pious acts in an effort to prove their status and holiness. There are still many people who do those kinds of things today. But I don’t think Jesus was talking about getting ashes on Ash Wednesday.
If anything, wearing ashes in public these days has become an almost countercultural act that is more isolating than empowering. Any reaction of “Oh, look how holy that guy is!” would be dripping with sarcasm, not respect. In today’s secular world, invading a newsfeed full of polarizing political posts and vapid pop culture nonsense with a photo of your ashes is more an act of evangelizing than self-aggrandizing.
On Ash Wednesday, your Catholicism is no secret. It could be the one day a year that people in your office or at the store find out that you’re a practicing Catholic. Maybe they’ll ask you about it. Maybe they won’t. But maybe they’ll think about it later, and it will plant a seed that ends up making them go to Mass again for the first time in many Lents. If they’re not religious, maybe it will prompt them to discern some larger questions or at least want to know why so many seemingly sane people are walking around with dirt on their foreheads.
Beyond what your ash might do for someone who sees you wearing it, Lent is perhaps the most powerful liturgical season on a personal level—if you let it be. Much like New Year’s, Lent presents a wonderful opportunity to take stock and rejigger. The priest who gave today’s homily at the Mass I attended said that Lent represents God’s way of interrupting your life. This is a perfect way of thinking about it. Lent should upset the apple cart of your daily routine. It starts by making you wear ashes and turning your fingers black every time you unconsciously rub your forehead. Then you introduce the idea of sacrifice: what can you give up or add to your life for the next 40 days? It’s like taking your car in for a tuneup. Sometimes they change the oil or replace worn out tires. Other times they’re fixing the air conditioning or adding a new stereo. Lent is one of the few times when you can add by subtracting. You can rid yourself of that gunky oil. You can replace that flat tire with one that might be more expensive in the short-term but will ultimately get you better mileage.
And it all starts on Ash Wednesday. The possibilities are endless today. You need to have a realistic plan if you’re going to stick with it for the next 40 days, but you also need to believe that you are up for a true challenge, and that God’s grace is there to help you complete this sacrifice if you offer it up for Him. It’s not a holy diet. It’s an act of sacrifice.
This is my daughter’s first Ash Wednesday, which makes it all the more powerful to me. It is both my greatest responsibility and my greatest joy to pass on my Catholic faith to her. The ashes on my forehead are a reminder of my sinfulness, brokenness and failure—as well as the incredible truth that Jesus overcame the cross to rescue me from all of that darkness and lead me to eternal life. These are the things that I will need to help my children to understand. This is why I wear my ashes. And this is why I think everyone should see them–in the street, in the office or on Instagram.
I pray that you have a thoughtful and faithful Lent that leaves you more open to God’s plan for your life, more willing to share the good news of your faith with others, more aware of how temporary our Earthly lives really are, and more focused on what that means for the time you have left.